Recipes

Scent Allergies

SO WHAT'S WRONG WITH TRYING TO SMELL NICE?
Nothing in itself. But the chemicals that are used to propagate fragrance can be quite toxic to some people. This isn't a matter of taste or unpleasantness; people who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) become physically sick, often to the point of being incapacitated, when exposed to artificial fragrances. A minimal amount of exposure is enough to hurt. For instance, a trace of scented laundry detergent in a room can force an MCS sufferer in the room to flee—or get very sick.

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?
1: Avoid using scented products. Unfortunately this can be very difficult, because in many cases manufacturers assume that fragrance is a normal component of their product. If a laundry detergent doesn't say something like “fragrance free”, for example, chances are it's scented (and harmful to MCS sufferers). Household cleaners are another case where fragrance is considered “normal”. But you can actually save money and avoid fragrance too by cleaning with things like vinegar and baking soda!
2: Notice when your friends or family are wearing fragrance in public, and tell them why this is a problem. This is something MCS sufferers cannot do for themselves; if they notice someone wearing scent, their first priority has to be getting away from that person!
3: If you know any chemically-sensitive people—try to be as non-toxic as possible when you visit with them, and if they visit you, try to make your location as safe as possible for them.



WHY SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MCS SUFFERERS?
First of all—out of politeness. MCS is a disability like any other, and simple accommodations to MCS sufferers are possible. Just as you would not trip a blind person, you can avoid hurting MCS sufferers by not using scented products. The worst are perfumes and air “fresheners”, but scented lotions, scented laundry detergents, scented soaps, scented cleaning products, and the like can all hurt people with MCS.
Second—you could find yourself in their shoes! People are not born with MCS; they acquire it. Typically, the disability is due to massive exposures to toxic chemicals, which overload the body's ability to eliminate those toxins. For instance, people have developed MCS from living near oil refineries which found it cheaper to operate by polluting; from working with fiberglass resin; from working in paint factories; from exposure to oil-well fires. But sometimes it just isn't clear what caused the problem... except that these days, we all live in a chemical soup.  The things that hurt MCS sufferers may actually be bad for everyone; by being considerate to MCS sufferers, you lighten your own toxic load, and may reduce your own chances of developing health problems.

ARE SCENTED PRODUCTS THE ONLY PROBLEM PRODUCTS?
Not at all; they're just the easiest for individuals to stop using. Many other things make MCS sufferers sick: each case is a bit different, but common triggers include new plastics (which usually outgas for some time after manufacture; think of “new car smell”), synthetic carpeting, fresh paint, car or diesel exhaust…
Doesn't the government make sure all these products are safe?
No; most of the problem substances are completely unregulated. Fragrance manufacturers are even allowed to keep their ingredients secret, so we can't even find out what's poisoning us without hiring an analytical chemist.

WHAT KIND OF REACTION DO MCS PEOPLE GET? IS IT AN ALLERGY?

Some MCS sufferers do use the term allergy as a shorthand, because people usually understand allergies.  Some even joke that they are “allergic to the 20th century”, since most of the problem substances were invented in the last few decades.  (We can only hope the 21st century will be less of a problem.)
But in some significant ways, MCS is the exact opposite of an allergy.
Allergies are over-reactions by the body, activating defensive mechanisms against (often natural) things in the environment that may not be intrinsically harmful. 
MCS seems to be an inability of some people's bodies to defend adequately against (usually artificial) things in the environment that really are toxic.
Sadly, another difference is that while many drugs are available to alleviate the symptoms of allergy sufferers, the only remedy that works for MCS sufferers is to avoid exposure.
An MCS reaction can include: headache (usually quite severe), severe disorientation, irritability and mood swings, nausea, overwhelming fatigue, and loss of muscle control. Not everyone gets all these symptoms, and people don't always get the same mix of symptoms. It may depend on the particular trigger, and on how intense the concentration of toxins is—but also on how severe a case of MCS the individual has.
The disorientation makes it particularly frustrating for MCS sufferers to explain what's going on. When you can't think straight is a very bad time to try to tell someone that their laundry detergent is making you sick!
MCS sufferers wind up being unable to use most public facilities: restaurants, museums, theaters, shops, and even city streets are filled with fragrance that is toxic to them.  People with the most severe cases of MCS wind up being prisoners inside an environment they work hard to keep safe.  Others are luckier, and can at least go outdoors, or visit friends who make an effort to keep their places safe.